Making The Shift From Good To Great In Running

What if I told you that you could learn something about your running to take you from good to great – from the world of business? Jim Collins best selling book on leadership ‘Good To Great’ analysed the difference between ‘good’ companies and ‘great’ companies and what set them apart. It has some worthwhile transferrable concepts to apply to running. As a coach I observe plenty of evidence that ‘good’ can be the enemy of ‘great’. Runners are not able to fulfil their potential when they settle for ‘good’ over ‘great’. Perhaps Jim can help us make that shift.


[Note: This article is aimed at Half and Marathon runners who are committed to running to their best potential. Not all runners are motivated by this, and that’s entirely valid.]

The Difference Between Good And Great

Firstly what is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ when it comes to running? That is hard definition to nail when you take into account a range of variables. For me the difference lies between running to your potential or even above (great) and running well (good but nowhere near your potential). By this measuring stick, people of all abilities are able to be great runners, whether they run a slow or a fast marathon. If you can go along with this then read on.

Measuring Greatness

Just how do we calculate our potential when it comes to half and full marathon? I propose that we do this through calculating our best times (run recently) in shorter distances (3km, 5km, 10km), which is a time honoured methodology in running. If my indicative times tell me that I’m capable of a 3:15 marathon no prizes for guessing what my goal is, or what the dividing line between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is for me. There may be some factors that may stop us from running a marathon that our shorter distances indicate, such as body type, rate of perspiration or other physiological factors. In other words some people may not be able to replicate form shown over shorter distances over the half or full marathon. Anomalies aside, most people should achieve the potential indicated by their times at shorter distances.

Jane Doe – aspiring great runner

Let’s look at a case study to illustrate.  Jane is an experienced intermediate runner. She has completed a number of half marathons and marathons and has her heart set on achieving her best potential marathon time. Just cracking a sub 3:30 marathon would be good, but she is capable of much more. Her recent 5km (20:19), 10km (42:12) and Half (1:33:55) times suggest she is capable of a 3:18 marathon but her pb so far is a 3:38.

She trains hard for her next marathon, arrives at the start without injury and is determined to achieve her goal or fulfilling her potential. She has not however changed her training habits from how she has previously prepared for the half or full marathon.  At the marathon she runs a 3:29. She has posted a new 9min pb and she is rightly pleased. She is happy because it was a ‘good’ run. Nobody could disagree. A marathon finish is always worthy of praise, and bearing in mind that she substantially improved her pb all can agree that it is a good run. She has done well.

[Trigger warning: harsh but fair opinion looming] However, sensitivities aside ‘good’ is not her goal by her own admission. She was and is aiming at ‘great’ (realising her full potential). It was a ‘good’ run and a step towards achieving her best but it’s not yet a ‘great’ run. She has not achieved her potential. If Jane is happy to settle for this ‘good’ run and not change anything in future training then in her case good has become the enemy of great. Until she is able to reach her full potential Jane has unfinished business. [This may not matter to others as they have different motivations, but Jane aspires to realise her full potential].

What Business Excellence Can Teach Us

Back to the world of business and what it can teach runners. In ‘Good To Great’ Collins offered seven characteristics that set great companies apart from good companies. There are some transferrable principles worth considering for runners in his summary which may help us make the transition to reaching our full potential:

  1. Humility

Collins found that leaders who are humble but driven lead ‘great’ companies. Likewise a runner who want to run to their potential needs to be driven. Without being driven you won’t do the hard work required in training and you won’t be prepared to suffer on the day. Humility leads to an openness to learning more, which usually means collaborating with a coach and constantly analysing training and performance, having peer mentors who are prepared to speak the brutal truth to you when necessary, and to kudos you when warranted.

It means being filthy with yourself when you don’t measure up to your expectations of consistent training, diet, rest, etc.

It means being open to the fact that you may need to stop doing certain things and start doing other things. The antithesis of humility is pride, which can get in the way of you making the changes you need to make in order to get different results. We are all on a lifelong journey of learning so admitting mistakes or changing your approach is nothing to be ashamed about.

  1. First Who Then What

Collins observed that great companies work out who they want ‘on the bus’ and who they want ‘off the bus’ first before deciding which direction to go. Likewise, in order to achieve great things in running having the right team around you is essential. This can consist of training partners, coaches, physios, masseuse, truth speaking peers, etc. A great team of people around you can massively impact your capacity to achieve your potential.

Long distance running is both solitary and communal, we cannot really achieve greater things without the support of a good team. This is why being part of a running club means such a lot to people. Surround yourself with a good team and be hungry to learn, feed off the experience and knowledge of those around you.

  1. Confront The Brutal Facts

Being brutally honest about yourself and having at least some trusted people who can be brutally honest to you is important. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Having an openness to facing brutal facts will help you improve and not settle for excuses. An openness to brutality is an openness to truth that hurts. Sometimes the truth hurts, sometimes it offends. If you are open enough truth becomes a spur to greater things.

As a coach, over the least 13 years I have noticed 3 distinct things above all else that in my view hold runners back from achieving their full potential:

  • Training too fast.
  • Not tapering properly.
  • Never resting properly.

I have learned to predict with a fair amount of accuracy about how races will go for runners depending on their training and tapering. Sometimes people defy science but most of the time the maths of running (depressingly so) rarely get proven wrong. There are some sports where you can ‘cram’ or bluff, but running isn’t one of them. Unless you have prepared well you are rarely primed to perform very well. Unless you have tapered well you may find there’s little there when you have to dig deep to stay with the pace.

As a business owner and a runner I have to look at the metrics and face the brutal truth. If I don’t my business cannot perform to its potential and as a runner I will have settled for good over great.

  1. The Hedgehog Concept

Collins developed a ‘hedgehog concept’ that consisted of three overlapping circles: What lights your fire (“passion”)? What could you be best in the world at (“best at”)? What makes you money (“driving resource”)? I would adapt that to the following:

  • What lights your fire? What race or challenge ignites your passion? Choosing this will help you be driven and disciplined in training. This will help you strive for excellence rather than settle for mediocrity.
  • What distance/race/challenge could you excel at? By picking something that is suited to your strengths you will be able to achieve a lot more.
  • What gives you the most returns? ‘Returns’ in running for amateurs is never measured in money, but in things money can’t buy. I’m all the richer for the challenges that I’ve taken on, the experiences it has given me and the relationships I have developed along the way. Returns could also be speed, or endurance, or achievements (bling!).

  1. Culture Of Discipline

Being able to be a great runner takes constant discipline to the extent that it mirrors the kind of disciplines that you would find in a monastery: eating well, resting well, consistent training, study, reflection, discipline. Good running takes a life of good habits and rhythms.

A disciplined approach to running allows you to avoid the consequences that flow from ill-discipline. Discipline helps you avoid carelessness and harming your potential as a runner.

  1. Technology Accelerators

We have at our disposal in this age technology that older runners never even dreamed of. It can be used frivolously or effectively. The maxim goes that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Those days are over. Every little aspect of your training can be monitored these days, even remotely. You have a wealth of data sitting at your fingertips, use it to learn as much as you can about your performance and to manage your performance. It’s no sue sitting on a wealth of data about your performance unless you are using that intelligently.

Don’t look at the KOM’s or segments or rankings, but rather look at key indicators of how well you’ve trained:

  • Did I run a sensible pace in my long run?
  • What heart rate zone was I in?
  • What was my cadence?
  • Did I achieve indicative times in my speed intervals?
  • Did I run an even pace?
  • How does it compare to when I last ran this route?
  • How does this match up to what was planned?
  1. The Flywheel

This is the concept of the additive effect of many small initiatives; they act on each other like compound interest to generate success. There is no magic silver bullet in best potential running. It is the accumulative effect of many small things done towards a singular objective.

It’s the decision to rest when fatigued, get enough sleep, have a proper warm up pre training and warm down drills post training, proper nutrition both on and off the run, etc.  Trying to pull things together close to a race won’t work. It takes a habitual approach to the many inches that count towards your goals each day.

Out Of Control

There are some days in races where factors outside of our control get in the way of us having a ‘great’ race. They may be environmental or to do with illness, etc. Running is a funny sport in that sense, we rarely have consistent playing field, and more often than not we are juggling niggles, injuries and other major life commitments. All this needs to be taken into account when assessing whether or not we are achieving our potential.

Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you don’t crack a ‘great’ time but don’t settle for second best either if you goal is to reach your peak. Keep pushing the envelope and aspire to your full potential. Don’t let good become the enemy of great.

Written by Stan Fetting.

Stan has been coaching with South Pine Striders since 2005 and owns a gym. His personal concept of great running is a Comrades Silver or a Western States 100miler sub 24 hours.

[Disclaimer:  Coaching involves opinions. They are well informed but nevertheless only opinions because coaching is an inexact science. Science can be interpreted in various ways, but science and empirical evidence there must be. Push back, debate and discussion on any views expressed welcome.]

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